Congressional committees buy up TV airtime for the fall campaign

House and Senate campaign committees are worried that if they don’t stake out their TV time now, they could be eclipsed in the fall by super-PACs and the pricey presidential race.

With more than six months until the election, the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) has already reserved $25 million in airtime after Labor Day to target six races, while the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) has announced plans to book $32 million in airtime in districts across the country.

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Democrats said it was the earliest buy in their campaign arm’s history. In 2010, the DCCC didn’t start making buys until May, and in 2008, it wasn’t until June.

The rise of super-PACs and outside spending groups, combined with a presidential year that most expect will be the most expensive in history, has created a perfect storm for campaign committees, which could see their influence diminished if they can’t get on the air.

“At the end of the day, it’s going to be a fight for who can get time,” said former Rep. Vic Fazio (D-Calif.), who chaired the DCCC in the 1990s. “And the super-PACs are the major question mark.”

Like seats on an airplane, television time is a limited commodity, and those who wait to book could find themselves out of luck — or stuck with middle-of-the-night slots, rather than coveted primetime placements.

And, as with air travel, the later you book, the more you pay.

Individual candidates are guaranteed the lowest competitive rate for airtime, making it less crucial for them to book in advance. But for everyone else, prices in the weeks before the election could skyrocket up to 10 times the normal rate, said one committee official.

“It’s all supply and demand,” said a Republican media buyer. “These outside expenditure groups, they’re the ones that drive up the cost. They’re not guaranteed a certain price, so the stations raise the price.”

Committees have been locking in early buys for at least the last dozen years, with the priority going to key swing states with large, expensive media markets, such as Florida, Pennsylvania and Colorado.

But in previous cycles, buying early meant buying in late July or even August, strategists from both parties said.

This year, nobody knows how much airtime will even be left come summer.

“The super-PACs, the presidential committees and presidential campaigns are going to be guzzling up this time, and they’re worried they’re not going to be able to get their message out,” said Chris Ingram, a GOP media strategist in Florida.

It’s impossible to predict exactly how much super-PACs and presidential candidates will spend pushing their messages this year, but it’s a safe bet to assume it will shatter all historical records.

The largest outside conservative group, Crossroads, has pledged to spend $250 million on congressional and presidential campaigns this year. And Mitt Romney, the presumed GOP nominee, has set a goal to raise $800 million along with the Republican National Committee. President Obama is said to have a goal of raising $1 billion.

“In states like Virginia, Ohio, New Mexico and Wisconsin, there’s clearly a recognition that come this fall, the airwaves are going to be flooded with ads from both parties,” said a Republican official. “By buying early, it also sends a message to your donors that their money is going to be spent wisely — and from an offensive posture.”

An official with the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee said the group would be blocking out airtime in the near future. And in March, the National Republican Congressional Committee appointed three officials to lead its independent expenditure team.

Although the DCCC released a list on Tuesday of the 23 media markets where it said it was reserving time for the fall, two GOP sources told The Hill that as of Thursday, no time had yet been reserved.

There’s another advantage for committees to telegraph their plans well before campaign season really heats up: By law, committees can’t coordinate their spending with either candidates or super-PACs, a rule intended to prevent donors from using outside groups to funnel money to campaigns in excess of legal limits.

But by telegraphing their plans in the media, groups can communicate to their allies what races they are prioritizing and where they plan to concentrate their resources.

“This is a way of coordinating by headline,” said Kathy Kiely of the Sunlight Foundation, a nonpartisan watchdog group. “They can say, ‘Oh, by the way, we’re just going to let everyone know via the press what our advertising plans are.’ With a wink and a nod, that’s all it takes.”

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